BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- Though we like to think of a college degree as an unqualified good, it isn’t always. Maybe even especially not so for those who are seen to be the greatest beneficiaries of a socioeconomic-boosting credential: low-income young people.
Researchers from the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences analyzed a 13-year national study that contained clinical health data from over 11,000 participants. They found that though young adults who come from adverse backgrounds use resilience to achieve a higher social status, they are more likely to be unhealthy later in life than those not motivated to change their circumstances.
Like previous studies that have shown that stress can cause negative health effects, particularly in people coming from low-income backgrounds, the researchers found that “future-oriented” adolescents who strove to change their life trajectory suffered from stress that increased their risk of developing cardio-metabolic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
This will come as no surprise to people who have either been the first in their family to attend and graduate from college or have mentored a first-generation college student.
The risks that low-income students take in order to better their future prospects through the attainment of a college degree only start with financial considerations. They also include emotional considerations like dealing with leaving family behind, adjusting to new surroundings and challenging coursework, having to create a new identity for oneself and even figuring out the unwritten rules of interviewing for jobs and navigating white-collar office politics.
“As young adults work to break the cycle of poverty or strive toward being the first in their family to go to college, they experience a disproportionate burden of stress -- and were not resilient in terms of their future health due to the combined burden of lived adversity and striving to change it. This stress is then likely to cause irreversible weathering in their body systems,” said a press release announcing “The Health Impact of Upward Mobility,” which was recently published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.
It’s almost as though these “future-oriented” strivers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
By one calculation, it is well-known that increased education boosts social mobility and that higher incomes are associated with long-term health benefits.
But the climb to get into the middle class through higher education is ever-so-tough for low-income students. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, famous for its international rankings of educational attainment, only 5 percent of American children with parents who have not finished high school will graduate from college.
And while white students tend to fare better at getting a degree than African-Americans (34.2 percent), Hispanics (26.9 percent) and Native Americans (23.7 percent), the overall attainment rate for whites is still only 49.7 percent. Reflected in this last figure is the 10 percent poverty rate among white non-Hispanics. In raw numbers of people, impoverished whites are approximately twice the size of African-Americans in poverty, the group with the highest rate of economic hardship (25.8 percent).
There are, however, ways to combat the phenomenon of low-income strivers suffering from the fruits of their labors. Almost all of them involve providing the underpinnings that students from families with college-going cultures enjoy, starting with ensuring excellent K-12 education so that students will arrive on college campuses ready for university-level work.
Then there are other supports, such as making the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) easier for students and parents to complete, providing special campus orientation programs for students and families new to the college experience and providing mentors for students who are the first in their families to attend a university.
As someone who mentors a “first gen” college student -- and had to traverse my “first” university experience by myself -- I can attest to the power of just being there. It takes very little time and effort to answer questions, give encouragement and highlight opportunities for someone who is experiencing college and the job-application process for the first time.
Everyone wants low-income, first-time college students to succeed. Policymakers and university administrators can help them by recognizing that these students need extra reinforcements in order for their educational experience to pay off for a lifetime.
Esther J. Cepeda is a Nationally Syndicated Columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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